Over the past 25 years, college football’s postseason format for crowning a national champion has grown from two teams to four and now, starting in 2024, to 12.
For a sport that started in 1869 and spent most the 20th century using bowls and polls to determine who was No. 1, evolution has hit warp speed, racing from Bowl Championship Series to College Football Playoff 2.0.
“The times change, things change,” CFP Executive Director Bill Hancock said. “Things have moved pretty quickly relative to the last 153 years.”
The CFP announced Thursday it will expand to a 12-team event in two years, completing an 18-month process that was fraught with delays and disagreements. It is a momentous step, one with billions of dollars at stake in terms of TV and streaming revenue and one that changes the very fabric of the postseason.
The announcement came a day after the Rose Bowl agreed to amend its contract for the 2024 and 2025 seasons, the last hurdle CFP officials needed cleared to triple the size of what is now a four-team format.
“I never gave up,” Hancock said.
Expansion is expected to produce about $450 million in additional gross revenue for the conferences and schools that participate. The CFP’s current 12-year contract with ESPN runs through the 2025-26 season. CFP officials have said they would like to explore having multiple broadcast partners in the next cycle.
The idea of major college football holding a playoff dates back decades and the Championship Subdivision has had one since 1978. The late Penn State coach Joe Paterno pined for one in the 1970s. Former Big Eight Commissioner Chuck Nienas proposed one in the late 1980s.
The creation of the BCS in the late 1990s was the first step toward a real playoff, Hancock said.
“The BCS for the first time gave an opportunity to decide a national champion on the field every year, not just at the whims of the bowl pairings,” Hancock said.
The BCS used polls and computer rankings to ensure a 1 vs. 2 bowl game from 1998-2013, but at times produced questionable matchups that left fans unsatisfied.
“We had congressmen and senators getting involved in the selection process. There was a general unhappiness with the fact that somebody was always third on the outside looking in,” former Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said.
Former Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany was a playoff opponent — or at least skeptic — for years, but even he grew weary of defending the BCS.
“Everybody threw confetti when (the BCS) happened, but within three years it was getting killed,” Delany said.
Delany and the late former Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive, a playoff advocate, were instrumental in creating the current four-team format. The CFP debuted in 2014 with a 12-year contract, but less than halfway through it became apparent that fear of missing out had grown exponentially from the BCS days.
Bowlsby recalled Delany lamenting about how much more difficult it was to stomach being fifth in the selection committee’s CFP rankings than it was being third in the BCS standings.
“It’s hard being the one left out and you’re drawing conclusions based on very thin evidence a lot of the time,” Bowlsby said.
Delany compared the latest expansion of the playoff to NCAA men’s basketball tournament expansion from 1975-85, when the field doubled from 32 to 64 teams. Much like the CFP now, that expansion wasn’t so much about making sure a potential champion wasn’t left out.
It was about increasing participation.
“It made it a truly national event,” Delany said.
The latest plan to expand the playoff was unveiled in June 2021, but conference commissioners could not come to the unanimous consensus needed to push it forward. Expansion for the 2024 season was pronounced dead back in February.
“Getting from four to 12 didn’t have to be this difficult,” said Bowlsby, who was part of the four-person working group that spent more than two years developing the 12-team plan.
University presidents and chancellors who oversee the CFP stepped in and revived the process over the summer. They approved the original plan for use by 2026, and directed the commissioners to try to expand by 2024.
No longer haggling over the format, the commissioners needed to work through when and where the games will be played and whether bowl partners and championship game host cities could accommodate a change in schedule for 2024 and 2025.
The Rose Bowl issue was the last to be settled, as organizers for the 120-year-old bowl game were hoping to get some assurances from the CFP that they would keep their valuable New Year’s Day time when new contracts go into effect in 2026.
CFP officials balked. Facing the possibility of being painted as an obstructionist and potentially being shut out of the expanded playoff in the long term, the Rose Bowl agreed to move forward in good faith.
“It’s our intent to keep the Rose Bowl game on Jan. 1,” said Laura Farber, chairwoman of the Rose Bowl Management Committee. “But we’ll remain flexible in scheduling as needed.”
That’s important with how quickly things are moving in college football.
Delany speculated it was unlikely the next CFP contract would be as long as the last. He also noted that when the playoff becomes it a four-week event, it would be fairly easy to add four more teams.
Asked when to expect expansion to 16 teams, Hancock laughed.
“Next question,” he said.